WITH A TOUCH of Pablo Picasso, a hint of Hieronymus Bosch, a foray in the direction of Norman Catherine and another towards Mmakgabo Sebidi, not to mention some hefty nods to George Grosz, the work of Blessing Ngobeni seduces all your senses from the moment you walk into the gallery space. This, his fourth solo exhibition in the astonishing trajectory of awards and opportunities as well as disappointments and challenges that he has faced, attests to his indefatigable spirit and sheer lust for life.
The Song of the Chicotte is the result of his own inner working engine which draws across the values of art history with a thirsty intensity that doesn’t allow him to lose his own voice or become derivative. This body of work digresses from earlier pieces by Ngobeni in that it also rests on certain new energies he’s imbibed in a New York residency and a graffiti workshop, in Nantes, France earlier this year. These are characterised by his use of bluntly brash and neon colours, which in the hands of a lesser artist might have seemed gimmicky or tacky. But Ngobeni’s fierce sense of purpose – comparable on a level with the work of Nigerian contemporary artist Victor Ehikhamenor with its sure, rapid linework and intermingled calligraphic sequences – overrides any notion of flippant tricks.
As an essay on several different types of slavery – from within colonialist values to those defined by the paying of taxes – this body of 12 large works fills Circa’s dramatic space, teasing apart the notion of the chicotte, which is a nastier relative of the sjambok, used in colonialist times, often lethally.
But more than the historical references of atrocity, or the classical art references, as you look and follow the lines of logic in the huge figures built up of hundreds of visual anecdotes and snippets of everything from newspaper articles to monsters, you can see strong shades of Bitterkomix-like values in the way in which Ngobeni speaks of sex, violence and social exuberance, with two-dimensional images interfacing, overlaying and underplaying more complex visual associations. Indeed, there’s a hint of the kind of complicated narrative handled with a dexterous simplicity that American artist Kara Walker dabbles with, as well, in her visual tales of horrendous atrocity concerning sexuality, identity and slavery in her works.
There’s a long line of cynicism that threads through these astonishingly energetic works, with a viscosity that is both extremely disturbing and viciously hilarious at the same time. You can’t look at these works flippantly or quickly: as you walk into the gallery space, they grab you by the innards and won’t let go until you have allowed yourself to be sucked into their complicated interstices and tried to figure out what parts of the body you are looking at and how the details relate to the whole. You emerge dizzied, but replete with the cut and thrust of something amazing.
- The Song of the Chicotte by Blessing Ngobeni is at Circa Gallery, Rosebank until August 6. 011 788 4805 or circaonjellicoe.com